Journalist and motivational speaker Jeff Johnson says it's time for men to take radical steps in order to save our streets

by Jeff Johnson, July 23, 2012


Jeff Johnson says it's time for men to organize.

Recently there has been significant chatter on Twitter and other social media about the violence taking place in Chicago and what our community should be doing about it. Most of us want to take action, but don't seem to have a firm grasp on what the solution might be. There is no shortage of potential solutions that can have an impact on violence, but there is a glaring issue in the streets of urban America that I have not heard discussed by many, if by any.

Where is the positive army of men committed to defending civilians in urban communities?

I think back to a time when more men were in family homes than now. Fathers, uncles, grandfathers, and brothers prepared to defend the women and children in their homes, in their families and even on their blocks, and this was an organized and cultural value that existed for generations until recently (the last 10 years). From the men that stood watch over families from Reconstruction to the ‘50s, to the Nation of Islam of Elijah Muhammad and the Black Panther Party for Self Defense of the '60s, to the Guardian Angels of the ‘70s, and the Nation of Islam under the leadership of Minister Farrakhan that led us into the Million Man March of 1995. There has consistently been a group of Black men committed, recognizable, TRAINED, and willing to stand in the gap. It did not mean that there was never crime, gangs, police brutality, gangstas, or violence. 

What it did mean was that there was a group of men that those forces had to answer to, negotiate with, and in the worst cases battle with. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense fed children, provided clinics for the poor and insured that many a brutal police department was not able to operate without opposition. Guardian Angels in many cities made people safer, as criminals knew they could not run rough shot over citizens when the red jackets were on the block. And the Nation of Islam, under both Elijah Muhammad and Minister Farrakhan's leadership, prepared a literal army of men in the Fruit of Islam to be a presence. They negotiated with gangs and drug dealers, creating safe zones and providing protection in certain housing projects. None of these organizations or their engagement was perfect, but it was real and made an impact.

Who is even willing to stand on the corner now besides the corner boys?

Please don't get me wrong. There ARE strong men in our communities. Teachers, professionals, preachers, even police officers that are in the streets, unafraid to love and engage those in our community that others won’t even talk to.  They mentor, teach, train, and sometimes just talk to our children and the adults who often lead them without a budget, title, organization, praise, or press. I salute all of them. Like those men working with the O.K. Program, where police officers don't just want to lock up our boys, but rather fight for them. Or Like CJ Blair, a preacher in D.C., going places many won’t even pray for to show people that they can leave those streets just as he did. Or like Basheer Jones in Cleveland, making his way into the schools and staying on the block to talk to Cleveland's youth when many others won’t. And there are countless others in your city and mine. But, there are not enough and we are not organized or trained.

The late Manning Marable, scholar and founder of the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University, used to proclaim that much of the leadership that the Black community was "supposed" to have were the very men who were locked up.  Brothers who were lost to the drug trade, gangs, and crime instead of plugged into the church, the NAACP, or other institutions of higher education. Lack of fathers in the home, poor education, and poor decisions served as an onramp to a road for them to operate against the community instead of serving it.

Marable's argument is indirectly supported when you look at the numbers of Black men in jail vs. college. In 2010 reports showed that 1,236,443 African American men were enrolled in college, versus the 841,000 serving time. These numbers illustrate that there are enough men available to provide front line leadership in local communities, but we are lacking the communal will to develop men with the heart; the institutions to provide the skills; and the mandate to say we have no other options but to do so. This is not some patriarchal recommendation excluding sisters from the discussion. But we have mothers and grandmothers on a front line and the men must stand with them. This model can provide a cultural renaissance that illustrates to our community and the world the commitment Black men have to defending their families and their people.

We need a trained force of men, not to serve as a militia or vigilantes, but as defense teams. The Black community does not need angry, undisciplined men who simply act as rhetorical lightning rods or who mask egomaniacal power tripping in faux Black Nationalist garb. Nor should we put good men in harm’s way by placing them in environments they are not called or prepared to work in. But rather, we need to work strategically with men who know and love their community enough to work tirelessly to prevent harm. I am not suggesting that every man be part of these teams. There are brothers contributing brilliantly as fathers raising their children, professionals providing expertise, teachers, preachers, and students. This is a chess game and there are roles that all men can play. We just cannot afford to leave this critical piece off the board and expect to win.

At the height of their activity in the 1960's, the Nation of Islam boasted a membership of over 500,000. A legitimate force, but a fraction of the over 14 million Black men in the country at that time. It only takes a small cohort of committed men to make a difference on the local level. Men who know the communities they are working in, who can talk to the brothers (and they are our brothers and sons) who run the streets, who can negotiate and protect, and who can make life difficult for those that want to make life difficult for civilians. I am not suggesting a revival of any of the organizations that I mentioned earlier, but rather a new gathering of men—doesn't matter the name or banner under which they operate. What matters is will they be visible? Will they be engaged? Will they be trained? Will they simply stand before the bullets fly and go to the places necessary after they do?

Maybe I am living in fantasyland to think that things can change when enough of the right men stand up. But I don't believe that the men who partnered with sisters, created infrastructure, led movements, raised children, and protected wives, sacrificed all they did for us to give our communities away. I believe, like James Baldwin, that "not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” There are nuanced ways to face the violence in cities and build these "teams" in local communities.

Brothers, please work with each other; strengthen and support those doing good work. Where no one is working, create something. Identify people skilled and willing to train in conflict resolution, program development, self-defense, and organizing. George Washington Carver said it best when he stated, "When you do common things in life in an uncommon way you will command the attention of the world.” Throughout history our reality has always changed when common men stood up and demanded the attention of the world through their collected presence and service. Lets stand again.

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